Organic Panic

Deciding whether to shop organically at the supermarket.

Grocery shopping has become a confounding experience. We are armed with more nutritional information than ever before, yet we still face conflicting opinions and endless decisions when picking up groceries. Generally when we modern parents bring a cart-load of food home, we’re left wondering: Did we choose the right things?

Consider partially hydrogenated oils. The government deems them as bad for you as cigarettes, leaving no place for such oils on the diet pyramid. So skip them, right? But why do they appear on most nutritional labels in mainstream supermarkets? Though partially hydrogenated oils were outright banned in New York City and Westchester restaurants because of their undisputed health risk, they remain in many packaged foods. And sparse— if any— warning labels about the oils appear in the market aisles.

Typical scenario: Busy moms and dads grab a food product to eyeball its ingredients. Realizing the item is full of trans fat, it goes back on the shelf. Maybe it’s worth a trip to the “natural” food store on the way home to find some alternatives. Does that make Food Emporium, Stop & Shop and the other popular supermarkets “unnatural” food stores? Of course there is the natural foods section at those stores— albeit with more expensive fare and limited choices.

In my mind, it would make a lot more sense to stock the smaller section of the market full of taboo items loaded with trans fats, artificial colors and flavors, high-fructose corn syrup and other unwanted ingredients, and use the larger area of the store for healthy foods. At least the produce aisle seems a safe haven. And then comes the barrage of similar sounding choices: Organic. Local. Local organic. Conventional. When did buying fruits and vegetables involve making a political, economic and health risk decision?

I feel fairly informed when I use my dirty dozen list for buying organic. This list basically reveals items that are the most important to buy organically. It helps me avoid the fruits and vegetables that contain the highest concentrations of pesticides. Although broccoli is not on the list, I throw it in the cart thinking that the benefits of broccoli surely outweigh the risk of ingesting a bit of pesticides. How ridiculous? If mainstream farming methods produce vegetables that are potentially carcinogenic, then they should have no place in our supermarkets— just like partially hydrogenated oils.

Even Whole Foods does nothing to alleviate the confusion. Side by side, bins of similar-looking produce are boxed and priced in ascending order of conventional, organic and local organic. Why sell conventional at all if there is any presumption of un-healthfulness? If these risks are ambiguous, then the testing of the chemicals to determine the long-term health effects should be an urgent issue in regulating the nation’s food supply. The FDA exists for this purpose. However, market forces rule the aisles. Imagine ordering pasta primavera in a restaurant and the waiter asking: Would you like the dish with harmful chemicals or without? The analogies abound: Would you like the pilot flying your plane to have conventional training or training with current safety standards and environmental considerations?

Now think of all of this through the eyes of a curious 6 year old who loves strawberries. “Mommy, there aren’t organic ones today! We can’t buy strawberries!” I reassure my son that it is fine just this once— strawberries are still healthy. “But there is poison in them,” my son counters. “Don’t. Buy. Them!” I realize I may have created a monster.

How are we as parents to teach a growing eater what is healthy, as well as what is acceptable? Children want to know the rules. Blue frosting on school cupcakes? You can say avoid such dessert, but that eating it won’t kill you. “Mommy, do you mean some families don’t care if they eat partially hydrogenated oil?” I explain to my son that these families do care but have little time, means or choices to go searching for alternatives.

The reality is that parents who are stretching their grocery dollars would be hard pressed to spend the huge premium on healthy and organic items. Eating pure food should never be a class issue. I wish for everyone to be able to pick up an apple, put it in the cart and not have to consider the risk assessment. If all food can’t be local or organic items, then the supermarket, as well as the local and federal government, should ensure the unequivocal quality of produce, meat and other food products. At the very least, a large explanatory sign should explain the definition of organic items (some stores have this) and also the different health (and perhaps taste) implications of buying a conventional item.

Things are slowly improving— and getting less confusing. There’s a growing “locavores” movement, a better school food movement, a push to ban trans fats in New York and other areas of the nation, and an increasing public demand for organic, unprocessed food. Stores like Trader Joe’s are changing the old paradigm of a supermarket in that the company seems to have the consumer’s health in mind by offering healthy and well-priced versions of real food. Stores like this are helping the public put into practice what the myriad doctors and nutrition experts want us to do— make good food choices. If only a safe food haven like this existed at every subway stop and on every Main Street, then there would be nothing to panic about.